As a teenager hungry for new music, I would scour the cut-out bins and second-hand shops of my home town. A psychedelic cover or interesting personnel would be enough to prise the 20p-50p from my pocket and leave with what might be a new gem under my arm. One of these was Earth Opera’s ‘The Great American Eagle Tragedy’ – the personnel list included John Cale and Jack Bonus. The latter was one of the small number of artists on the Jefferson Airplane’s short-lived Grunt label.
Earth Opera were a folk-rock band from Boston formed by Peter Rowan, after his stint with Bill Monroe, and David Grisman. Adding John Nagy (bass) and Paul Dillon (drums) they signed to Elektra and issued a self-titled LP in 1968. The follow-up ‘The Great American Eagle Tragedy’ came out the following year. Mine is the UK mono version (EKL4038, distributed by Polydor in the UK)
The album starts with Rowan’s ‘Home To You’ a gorgeous folk-pop tune with a lovely pedal steel from fellow Bluegrass Boy Bill Keith. It was an unlikely US top 100 hit. ‘Mad Lydia’s Waltz’ follows strong on Grisman’s mandolin with an East European feel. The Side 1 closer ‘All Winter Long’ is my favourite track opening with acoustic guitar, flute and viola and rising and falling before a sax solo joined by electric guitar and flute works the theme before the song falls back into the verse /chorus. The title track and cornerstone of Side 2 is a protest song for a rustic mediaeval society (in reality more like a US Renaissance Fair) whose leaders send their boys to die in a jungle war. A slow folkie start with Cale’s viola again prominent then some fine sax and guitar as the song builds over 9 minutes to its frenzied “bye. bye…die! die!…stop the war!” almost cacophonous conclusion.
Rowan and Grisman went on to bigger and better things and soon afterwards swapped coasts setting up their respective shops in the Bay Area. They reunited in Old And In The Way, with their pal from the early 1960s bluegrass festival circuit, Jerry Garcia, and Muleskinner, with Richard Greene and guitar legend Clarence White. Both Rowan and Grisman have extensive musical CVs.
The original UK mono version on the red Elektra label can be bought for around £20-£30 in decent condition, the stereo version for slightly less. A later reissue on the Elektra butterfly label fetches £8-£10 whilst a 1987 Edsel reissue goes for a similar amount. There was a US CD reissue in 2001 which fetches around £10.
However, for those interested as much in music as artefact, Rhino issued a UK 2CD set in 2004 with both the band’s albums plus a bonus track from ‘The Great American Eagle Tragedy’ sessions ‘After You’ which now costs around £20. There is also an American ‘Complete Recordings’ 2CD set issued 2017 which added the shortened single version of the title track. This is still available to buy new but probably only on import, so watch those postal charges!